The climate apocalypse: Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided?

Sep 6, 2021
coal plant
(Image: Unsplash)

If OECD countries don’t phase out existing coal by 2030, they will be facilitating global collapse.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said “a target of net zero 2050 emissions to address the climate emergency is an illusion, net zero must be in the next decade. There must be no new coal plants built after 2021. OECD countries must phase out existing coal by 2030, with all others following suit by 2040”.

This article explains that to do less would facilitate global collapse.

In 2012 Paul and Anne Ehrlich gave a paper to mark his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society: it was entitled “Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be avoided”. It noted that past civilisations had collapsed, the fall of the Roman Empire being a notable example.

“Collapse” can understood to be widespread social breakdown of the core institutions of the society, or civilisation, resulting in a radical decline in complexity and the capacity to satisfy basic needs of the population, which could lead to a decline, perhaps rapid, in population numbers.

This possibility needs immediate consideration now that the G7 Summit meeting in London recognised the threat  from the confluence of climate change and biodiversity and the subsequent IPCC report confirmed the growing threats.

The acceleration and severity of climate change related events, fire, flood and storms in the northern hemisphere has many scientists deeply concerned.

It is apparent that the resolve to deliver a target of net zero 2050 emissions is illusory for it allows fossil fuel usage to continue. New developments must cease and current usage curtailed to prevent temperature rises of more than two and possibly three degrees this century.

The Ehrlichs noted that the collapse of previous civilisations was local, but today, due to globalisation, there is one vast techno-industrial system, and collapse if it occurs, is likely to bring down the entire edifice in a Great Crash.

Global civilisation faces existential threats from a multitude of converging and compounding “catastrophes,” as J. H. Kunstler in The Long Emergency (Atlantic Books, London, 2005), described it. The Ehrlich’s cited the then UK chief scientific adviser John Beddington who characterised the threat as a “perfect storm” of environmental problems.

Climate change is one of the most dangerous threats, as we will reference in the discussion below, but interacting threats include biodiversity extinction and the consequent loss of ecosystem services, land and water degradation, ocean acidification and eutrophication, the depletion of scarce resources (“peak everything”), the pandemic threat (as seen at present with COVID-19 and its variants), chemical pollution and the danger of nuclear war. It was highly likely that even in 2012, the world had already reached many “limits to growth,” and overshoot, resulting in the depletion of ecological capital, as suggested by ecological footprint analysis.

The Ehrlichs gave an overview of the evidence at the time and concluded that global civilisation can avoid a collapse if there was the will to immediately act in something of a total “war” effort to address each problem. However, they concluded that “the odds of avoiding collapse seem small because the risks are clearly not obvious to most people and the classic signs of impending collapse, especially diminishing returns to complexity are everywhere”, words which should haunt us now. Paul Ehrlich was wrong about his population bomb prediction in the late 1960s (not anticipating the “green revolution”), and naturally critics rejected his dire predictions once more. However, there is now a substantial scientific literature supporting the conclusion he reached, that without utterly radical changes in present modes of living, collapse of global civilisation will occur.

We mention briefly, four academic papers published in 2021, which can be interpreted to support the “collapseology” conclusion, explicitly or implicitly. The paper by Gaya Herrington, “Update to Limits to Growth: Comparing the World3 Model with Empirical Data,” in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, examined the report for the Club of Rome, D. H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth (1972), recalibrating World3 with 2019 data. It was found that the Meadow et al. prediction of a societal collapse by the mid-to-late 21st century was in fact optimistic, and on the business as usual model of exponential economic growth and intense fossil fuel use, a collapse of global civilisation would occur by 2040.

The 2021 paper by King and Jones, “An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity” takes the likelihood of collapse very seriously, exploring “nodes of persisting complexity,” places to “bug out” to when the crisis fully hits. Places less impacted by global “decomplexification” (collapse), in the light of the environmental crisis include Norway, New Zealand, Finland and Denmark, if they are lucky. Perhaps rich capitalists intend to “bug out” to a more habitable planet as signalled by their space odysseys.

Other papers warn of the ecological catastrophe that is looming, especially from climate change:

Ripple and colleagues, “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021“, warn that ecological catastrophe is looming. An earlier version declared a climate emergency, and was signed by 11,000 scientists. The authors noted that there has already been a surge in climate-related disasters since 2019, including mega-droughts, heatwaves, and in various regions, floods and super-storms. “There is also mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed tipping points associated with critical parts of the Earth system.”

The same conclusion was also reached by Corey Bradshaw and colleagues, “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future” in Frontiers in Conservation Science. This paper emphasised the threat posed by biodiversity loss, from human economic expansion, as well as climate change impacts. A Sixth Mass Extinction event has commenced, and the consequences of this alone may ultimately lead to Homo sapiens being one more species to face an extinction threat, since humans are totally dependent upon biodiversity for their survival.

Finally, two peer-reviewed scientific reports add further weight to the dire conclusions reached by the authors discussed above. First is the “State of the Climate in 2020,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society and the second is IPCC Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, (Cambridge University Press, in press). These reports support the warnings of Ripple et al., 2021, of a climatic emergency.

Thus, Ehrlich was right in proposing that on the business as usual scenario of exponential growth and overconsumption, humanity faces the possibility of a collapse of global civilisation. The consequences of the “what if it happens” scenario are seldom discussed by academics, with various excuses given, such as, it might lead ordinary people to resignation and despair.

But, the same principle is not adopted in medical practice, where it is required for practitioners to have a duty of care to honestly explain to the patient their health condition, even if it is terminal. Indeed, the Australian Medical Association and Doctors for the Environment Australia has recognised climate change as a health emergency.

So how far are we from preventing collapse and human extinction? It is imminent when we consider that the world’s greatest exporter of coal and gas is still at base camp quibbling about net zero by 2050 and has let loose with fervour new fossil fuel developments with subsides to ensure success.

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